Sunday, 10 April 2011

Sodom and Gomorrah (Marcel Proust)

--The blurb--
"In this fourth volume, Proust's novel takes up for the first time the theme of homosexual love and examines how destructive sexual jealousy can be for those who suffer it."

--The review--
In presenting us with yet more hundreds of pages of high society goings-on (or, perhaps more to the point, non-goings-on), Proust seems out to bore us. However, the situation becomes more interesting and poignant when St Loup and Swann reappear, and we agree more with Saint-Loup too, who seems to be suggesting that he is becoming bored with high society life, and by this stage in the epic French novel we readily acquiesce. These two characters are refreshing among the parade of faceless individuals and only slight movements of an amoebic conglomerate. 

As with other volumes of In Search Of Lost Time, though, this fourth instalments is, by turns, eerily prophetic, sublime, and thoughtful. The narrator continues also to give us academic and philosophical food for thought: we are forced to consider our own narcissism, for one thing. Do we not all, in some way, consider our own lives as a cast of a few special ones moving against a background of superficial and two-dimensional others? If this is the case then Proust has replicated our own situations very accurately, even if this in a setting that contemporary readers do not recognise. On a more academic level, the discussion of the etymology of place names is relevant to the theme of name versus place raised in earlier volumes, but was interesting to me as a topic that I had considered as a subject of my master's degree thesis, so this interest may therefore not be so piqued for others. The same applies to the discussion of sex versus gender which takes place later in this volume. More universally intriguing is perhaps the nature of dream and sleep; Proust asserts his curiosity that we do not count the pleasures experienced in sleep as part of our everyday life's catalogue of happy moments.

The author is consistent in his inconsistency in the provision of gleams of light. The prose is still often impenetrable and opaque, and it is difficult to tell how much of this can be traced back to the author himself and how much of it can be laid at the translator's door. While certain gems keep the reader going, and such passages are clearly successful, these are counteracted by the lack of success found in the author's use of malapropism. The narrator's persona also continues to be difficult to deal with: while he is becoming more assertive, he is still manipulative, irritating, wimpish, neurotic and possessive, with his separation anxiety serving as an omnipresent undercurrent. This is simultaneously annoying and interesting as it does in some ways provide narrative momentum: we wonder, as a result of his nature, what purpose his relationship with Albertine really serves, and it is a relief to the readers to know that some of the servants featured in the novel also find his neuroses ridiculous, and that not everyone in the novel is taking the narrator as seriously as he is taking himself. The Balbec hotellier is another voice of reason - even though the narrator assumes that he says "I can tell you have nothing better to do" out of jealousy at not having been invited, the reality is that he says what the rest of us are thinking.

The reader longs for the narrator to return to the pleasant, peaceful and beautiful seaside retreat of Balbec in the hope of escaping the high society circles in which he has been moving in Paris. This unbearable circle of people is unfortunately not entirely left behind in the French capital, but this is slightly compensated for by other characters appearing who are more interesting - even if they are equally unconvincing, caricaturish, and an embodiment of petty inside politics. The audacity and tactlessness expressed by some of these members of the gentry would be hilarious with the right delivery, and further comedy can be ferreted out from the Verdurins' fickleness.

It is difficult to link the title to the book's content, as its theme does not supply a consistent thread - apart from a few throwaway tidbits we are not given much. This is something to be grateful for in other ways, though - if the alternative were a full-on diatribe of the ilk found in Part 1, Chapter 1, then most readers would likely pass. Proust as a precursor to the Austenesque humour that is so known and loved in British society today provides light to contrast the narrator's indecisiveness; he really seems to want to romanticise the fact of him being a womaniser, and seems more in love with the idea of being in love than ever. We end the volume feeling that his continuing liaison with Albertine is going to be a very bad car crash to say the least, and wondering how the author will pick up the pieces.

Other works by Marcel Proust
Pleasures and Days (1896)
Swann's Way (volume 1; 1913)
Within A Budding Grove (volume 2; 1919)
The Lemoine Affair (1919)
The Guermantes Way (volume 3; 1920/21)
The Captive/The Fugitive (volumes 5/6; 1923/25)
Time Regained (volume 7; 1927)

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Bookworm News: April 2011

Billy Joel
Memoir News
"The Book of Joel", the Billy Joel autobiography due to be published this summer, has allegedly been dropped by Harper Collins due to the musical icon's reluctance to discuss his substance abuse and failed marriages. Makes you wonder why he signed up for it then really.
In the meantime, I was also wondering if my favourite stand-up comedian, Bill Bailey, will ever do an autobiography. After all, given that other successful comedians such as Michael McIntyre, Peter Kay and Dawn French have already done so, it would just be rude not to :p

Banned Books
The author of a new book about Mahatma Gandhi has defended claims that he accused the book's subject of being racist or secretly bisexual. Joseph Lelyveld's "Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India" has already been banned in Gandhi's home state and, according to the BBC, it is possible that bans in other areas may follow. This has arisen from early reviews which cited words from some of Gandhi's letters; the author claims that these words have been taken out of context and that the word 'bisexual' was not once used in his book.

Booker Batted Back
In a moment akin to Benjamin Zephaniah refusing the OBE he was offered in 2003, crime writer John le Carré has now rebuffed his International Man Booker Prize nomination, saying only that he does not compete for literary awards. The other writers on the shortlist are David Malouf of Australia; James Kelan and Philip Pullman of Britain; Wang Anyi and Su Tong of China; Juan Goytisolo of Spain; Amin Maalouf of Lebanon; Dacia Maraini of Italy; Rohinton Mistry of India and Canada; and Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth and Anne Tyler of the United States.

In celebration of success, however...
Jeff Kinney, author of the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series, is still marvelling over its success. The series has been made into two blockbuster films and has also been recently recommended by education mogul Chris Woodhead as essential reading for children. "For me, this has been really fun, beyond my wildest expectations. I feel like I have my normal life in Plainville, Mass., and then my ridiculous fantasy life where I'm up on a stage, talking to people like this. So, it's just been surreal and very, very fun," Kinney, who is also an executive producer of the junior high-set flicks, told UPI at a recent New York press conference. There were reportedly 42 million copies of the series in circulation in 2010.
Aussie author and illustrator Shaun Tan has also recently won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title was given to Michael Young's Managing A Dental Practice The Genghis Khan Way. The Ridenhour Prize (awarded to a book deemed to be of social significance) went to Deadly Spin, by Wendell Potter.

Innovation of the month
Byook is not only a new reading experience but it is also keeping up with the latest technology with its recent launch for iPhone. Using codes and rules defined by the film industry, these ebooks are not just any ebooks: they are entrenched with pictures, animations and sounds, and as you read the first Byook for iPhone, a classic Sherlock Holmes tale, you will see the rain fall and blood drip in the palm of your hand as sound effects resonate in your ears, taking imagination to a whole new level. Out now, the app costs $1.99, and allows your senses to lead you beyond words.  

Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (Jonathan Coe)

--The blurb--
"Maxwell Sim can't make a meaningful connection. His absent father is preoccupied with poetry; he maintains an e-mail correspondence with his estranged wife under a false identity; his daughter prefers her BlackBerry to his conversation; and his best friend won't return his calls. He has seventy friends on Facebook, but nobody to talk to. Max tries to stir himself out of this rut by quitting his job to accept a strange business proposition: to drive a Prius full of toothbrushes from London to the remote Shetland Islands in a misguided promotional campaign for a dental-hygiene company. Instead, he makes a series of awkward, cruelly enlightening visits to figures from his past, falling in love with the soothing voice of his GPS system ('Emma' ) en route. Eventually he comes to wonder if perhaps it's his utter lack of self-knowledge that's hampering his ability to form actual relationships."

--The review--
Having read Jonathan Coe's works avidly for the past ten years or so, it would perhaps be fair to say that by this time my expectations were almost unreasonably high, after unequivocally enjoying every one of his books that I had read and often visiting many for rereads and never tiring of their narrative twists and turns and character developments.

So if I was disappointed by The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim it was perhaps not entirely unexpected. The main character grated on my nerves in a manner that Coe's protagonists had not done in his previous works. Worse still, this did not even have the pleasant side effect of entertaining me. Compounding this was the "product placement" that I talked to Coe about in my recent interview with him; to me, it is lazy writing that limits the reader's own visualisation - something that I did not imagine Coe being guilty of. As a consequence, I believe that the novel will date more quickly than his previous ones - he is writing about a time period in which we still live, which has not yet passed, and so which cannot yet take on the feel of nostalgia that, for instance, The Rotters' Club has: it is difficult to know what, ten years from now, we will look back on with fondness, and what, in our minds, will just seem tired or insignificant.

However, The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim is not without its merits. In spite of the aspects of it that made me cringe, we do wonder how all of the novel's seemingly different components will eventually link up, and Coe guides us successfully to the conclusion of these. His portrayal of the protagonist's descent into insanity is also far more convincing than others who have tried similar tricks recently (yes, Alastair Campbell, I'm looking at you), and it shows with dexterity how easily we can all find ourselves getting into a rut if we are not careful. The novel's investigation of loneliness and privacy is also an intriguing one (even if I, unlike Coe, believe that this could have been achieved without the "product placement" effect), and the fact that at the end of the novel Maxwell's own personal, spiritual journey to find his own sense of self-worth is in fact only just beginning is a realistic and moving resolution; to have him waltz off into the sunset with the illusion that life just works out magically would not have been anywhere near as satisfying. Having such an imperfect narrator at the novel's forefront is almost like holding a mirror up to ourselves, showing us all of our own flaws, and prompts us to ask ourselves how we too can move forward with our lives on our individual quest to vanquish various insecurities. The style in which this is all expressed may not be to everybody's taste, but the message is powerful and bound to reach out to the majority of people in some way that they can easily identify with personally.

The end of the novel is curious, as it serves as a criticism of itself and of the genre of novel-writing in general. While I can see why Coe included it, it is ultimately unnecessary: by the end of the novel, the flaws of it have faded into the background and we are left with the complexities of the plot and of Maxwell's character. We do not need the author to step in at this stage; his craft has already done its work, and it is these intricacies and layers and faults inherent in the novel that perhaps make it one of Coe's most intriguing brainchildren: while his other books are straightforward to the point of becoming instantly-loved and often-reread modern classics, this almost demands to be reread not to be wholly enjoyed but to be unravelled so that we as readers may engage not only in the uncomfortable journey of Maxwell Sim but also in our own distinctly awkward voyages into the centres of ourselves.

Other works by Jonathan Coe
The Accidental Woman (1987)
A Touch of Love (1989)
The Dwarves of Death (1990)
What A Carve Up! (1994)
The House of Sleep (1997)
The Rotters' Club (2001)
The Closed Circle (2004)
The Rain Before It Falls (2007)

Author Interview: Jonathan Coe

Bianca Summons talks with Jonathan Coe during an author event at WHSmith Paris about Starbucks, Ricky Gervais, and on what he’s got lined up next

How has the international reception of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim been?
As far as I can tell, the novel has taken off into a different league in France in particular. In a month it sold four or five times as many copies in France as it has sold in the UK ever since it has been published! So it seems that the French like it more than British, which seems odd! Perhaps the fact that it is a very British book is part of the appeal. I know that French people have a phrase they use sometimes, which they say in English when they say it - ‘so British’. If a reviewer in the UK says a book is ‘so British’ they are probably trashing it, whereas in France I gather that is a term of praise. I also did a tour recently of the East Coast of the United States, mainly in the Boston and New York area. I haven’t been to the States in about eight years and it was the first time I’d ever done a book tour there. It was an interesting process because they tend to go for the hard sell over there. It comes back to the ‘so British’ thing! They love the Britishness of what I do but there aren’t quite so many Anglophiles. The ones that are there tend to be on the East Coast. It was a lot of fun to meet some American readers at last. I have to say the most enthusiastic couple I met was in a little town in New Jersey called Metuchen. I was a bit nervous about doing a reading there on a Saturday night because I thought that it would probably not be well attended, but it was fine in the end. And this couple who was very excited to meet me and had read all my books was Russian! So I don’t know quite what they were doing in Metuchen on a Saturday evening, but it was nice to meet them. This sort of thing is always rather nice as it gets you out of your workspace and into motion. Travelling somehow stirs something up inside your mind, and what's more and more important for writers these days is finding a reason to leave your desk. The curse of the internet is that everything that I used to do in libraries and by going to newspaper archives and meeting people can nearly all be done online.

How did The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim come about?
The idea behind it is already explained at the end of the novel in a slightly curious last chapter. Like most of my novels, I suppose, it arose from the collision of three or four separate ideas. When I notice these discrete episodes or sequences or overhear fragments of conversation, which a writer who was that way inclined would weave into a short story, what I start to do in my head is form connections between them, think of ways in which these separate episodes could be connected into some kind of ironic or tragic relationship with each other. That was really the germ of the book.

Why is Maxwell Sim a toothbrush salesman?
Well, I always want to break new ground, and maybe he is the first one in literature! Life imitates fiction sometimes. On that theme, another character in this book has a job which I thought I was inventing for the purpose of the novel. She is an adultery facilitator, and her job is to hang around airports around the world and make sound recordings of the airport so that cheating husbands – or even cheating wives, for that matter! – can, when they phone their spouses back home, they can play this sound in the background in order to thrown their partners off the scent to make them think that they are in a different part of the world. I thought I had made this up completely, but I read only a couple of weeks ago in the newspaper that there is actually a casino in Moscow, which was raided recently and which had a telephone booth in the middle of it where you could go to make a phone call back to your wife, and you had four or five buttons which offered a choice of different soundtracks play inside the soundproof booth as background noise – one of them was an airport, but you could also choose noises from football grounds and so on to make someone think you weren’t in a casino. Life imitating art! As for the toothbrushes, I wanted my anti-hero to be as ordinary as possible and I couldn’t think of something much more ordinary than a toothbrush, which we all use every day without thinking about it.

One of the themes of the book is the difficulty that modern technology presents for human relationships, and yet of course it is not technology’s fault that Maxwell Sim fell out with his wife and didn't have much of a relationship with his father or his daughter. Do you think it’s fair to say that modern technology complicates human contact?
I write books nowadays not because I think know the answer to something and want to write the book in order to prove it, but I write them because I don’t know the answer and want to find out! Investigation is a huge part of the process of writing a book, and it does strike me as being incredible how the revolution in communication and technology in the past few years is something that we take for granted now. People have now of course started to write about how that affects the way we relate to each other. We now have all these new and amazing ways of connecting with each other and I thought it would be interesting to take a character who was lonely and slightly socially dysfunctional and find out whether this really makes life easier for him or intensifies and magnifies his loneliness and gives him new ways of realising he is lonely. Facebook is the obvious example - I knew nothing about Facebook before I started writing this book so I joined in order to find out how it works. I just joined and left it there and then after a while I realised that everyone else I knew on Facebook had three or four hundred friends and I had seven or eight friends, and I started to feel a little pathetic about this and started to actually feel very lonely on Facebook. So I thought that the same would probably be true in the case of Maxwell. Similarly with the email thing - he comes back from holiday and 136 of the 137 emails he's received in that time are spam and the one that he does receive is just a one-line message from his only friend in the world. So that's just another thing that brings home to him how friendless he is. It was a strand in the novel that was meant to be just a minor thing, but it made me wonder if it's possible these days to have a close, genuine and involved relationship with someone who doesn't actually exist online, because Maxwell's online identity is completely fictional. And this also started making me think about what it is that I do as a writer and what it is that I encourage my readers to do, which is to form an emotional bond with characters that I have made up. So part of the process of writing this novel was also a process of starting to question not only what I do but also the idea that we might get close to non-existent people online as well as in literature. An interesting kind of double standard!

I once read that you write from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., sometimes while listening to music and often without talking to anyone. What else can you tell us about the way in which you write?
I wish I did write from nine to five; if I did I’d probably produce about three novels a year! The reality is that I publish a novel about once every three or four years, of which the actual writing process takes about three to six months (about three-quarters of The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim was written in about 3 months). I’m at my desk let’s say from 10 until 4, but not much about it is writing, and I always feel rather guilty about this because a lot of what I do as part of my working life is just leisure as far as most people are concerned. Reading is an important part, but that is one of the more strenuous things I do. Sitting in a comfortable chair and staring into space is an extremely important part of the writing process - perhaps the most important part - which makes it hard to explain to your family after "a day at the office" when they ask how many words you wrote that day: "Well, I didn't write any, but I thought of some great ones...!"

What are you working on right now?
I’m in a difficult position at the moment because something has happened to me that has not happened to me before. I have two ideas for books and cannot decide which one to write. They're completely different ideas and each one is a step into the unknown for me. So the short answer is that I am trying to make up my mind as to what I am working on now. I haven't written anything since I finished Maxwell Sim, which is 18 months now, so I have to start something this year. Perhaps I'll get a different idea that will solve the problem!

How much interference do you have from editors; what is your relationship with your own editor like?
I know writers who have very close relationships with their editors, where the editor - although this doesn't occur quite so much these days - would work on the manuscript line by line with the author and go through all of the little changes with them. In a way I slightly envy that but in another way think I wouldn't enjoy it as I can be too bloody-minded! For my last four or five novels I have had a very good relationship with an editor who makes very broad and sweeping suggestions for changes, and I have made fundamental changes to at least one of my novels as a result. When it comes to the American editions some further changes are made, and in Maxwell Sim this related to some of the language that he uses. In general, though, I suppose I am lucky to have someone who likes my work more or less as it is and tends to let me get on with it!

And what about your relationship with the critics?
Henry Fielding (who I wrote my doctoral thesis on) was quite thin-skinned about the critics; as, I think, most writers are, but we try to put a brave face on it! I'd be lying if I said that I didn't read my reviews - but I don't know why I read them, really. I never learn anything from them; all you learn is that some people like some things and other people like different things! Once you have written the book there is nothing much you can do about it. I have heard more interesting things from readers - both for and against my books - than I have from reviews. Most reviewers, even the good ones, have an agenda and a theory of some sort – that’s their job. There have only ever been one or two occasions when I have read a review and thought “That was really mean, and I hope I never meet that person in real life”. Even when the review is positive, I sometimes think, “Well, it’s nice that they said that, but I don’t think they really ‘got’ it, actually.”

Going back to Maxwell Sim: I sometimes found him to be so irritating that he reminded me very much of David Brent, the character played by Ricky Gervais in The Office. Was he a direct inspiration in any way or was this purely coincidental?
I’ve never seen The Office, but it’s such an iconic show that I almost feel that I have seen it even though I haven't - I have seen many clips of it. But I hadn't put two and two together. So yes and no is the answer - not a direct influence, but I'm always encountering influences that I hadn't put my finger on before, and that might be one of them.

So who, in your view, would be best placed to play Maxwell Sim in a film version of the novel?
Now that I think about it, Ricky Gervais is a great idea. There’s also another British actor called David Morrissey who is mainly known as a TV actor, who I think would be good as Maxwell.

In The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, there seems to be a lot of ‘product placement’ – you have already talked about the inclusion of Facebook, but you also mention a lot of other brands, such as Starbucks and Pizza Express. Was this name-dropping of brands intentional?
I can’t say I’ve received anything from Starbucks for mentioning them, although I was once offered money by a car company to have one of my heroes drive a particular car, which I didn’t do, although I might regret it a little bit – it was quite a lot of money they were offering! I don’t know – how do you write about an ordinary man in the UK in 2009 without mentioning all of the usual places where he spends his life?

And finally – after your experience there as Maxwell Sim – are you still on Facebook?! Yes, but I can take it or leave it – I think I’ve got about 90 friends there now.

The paperback edition of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is out now; the audio version, read by Colin Buchanan, will be released on CD in May 2011